The collection primarily documents people, places and events in Harlem from the early 1930s to the mid-1950s. The collection consists of studio and candid portraits of mainly African American personalities, Harlem residents, and fashion models; views of various social and political events in Harlem; and coverage of sports events and other news stories, representing the Smiths' freelance photography work for the New York Amsterdam News, the New York Age, and other African-American newspapers. Images depicting the personal activities of the Smith brothers are limited.
The Personalities series consists of studio and candid portraits of African American personalities who were either residents, visitors, or active in Harlem during the 1930s to the 1950s. Among those represented in this series are entertainers Eddie "Rochester" Anderson, Josephine Baker and Bill Robinson; musicians and singers Duke Ellington, W.C. Handy, Nat King Cole, Marian Anderson, Billie Holiday and Philippa Schuyler; athletes Henry Armstrong, Jesse Owens, Joe Louis, Jackie Robinson, and Sugar Ray Robinson; artists Richmond Barthé and Augusta Savage; General Benjamin O. Davis, Sr.; political activists Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. and Paul Robeson; police official Samuel J. Battle; and cosmetician Rose Morgan. Of note are several images of boxer Joe Louis (ca. 1937-1945), the largest component of this series, depicting his activities at boxing workouts and training camps, at social gatherings and publicity events, and during his stint in the Army. The collection also includes a few images depicting the Smith brothers, some members of their family, and views of Marvin Smith, with Romare Bearden and others, in Paris (1950).
The Subjects series documents Harlem residents and workers, business and non-business establishments, activities and events of various organizations, and street scenes, during the 1930s to 1950s. Included in this series are views of artwork and artists at work; scenes in nightclubs; individual and group portraits of workers and practitioners of various occupations, including entertainers, musicians and dancers; portraits of members and views of activities of various organizations; sports figures and professional and amateur sports events; views of military drills and processions; portraits of religious leaders and religious services; studio and candid portraits of infants and young children; and studio portraits of women, many of them models.
Notable in the Subjects series are views of sculpture by Richmond Barthé and Augusta Savage, including views of Savage working on "The Harp" (1939), also known as "Lift Every Voice and Sing," commissioned for the 1939 New York World's Fair; views of the mourners and pallbearers at the funeral of James Weldon Johnson (1938); portraits of members of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (ca. 1930s); portraits of the New York Renaissance basketball team (1938-1939) and views of some of their games at the Renaissance Ballroom (ca. 1930s); views of patrons and dancers, including lindy hoppers, at the Savoy Ballroom (late 1930s); and candid shots of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt visiting the Schomburg Collection of Negro Literature, accompanied by Schomburg curator Lawrence Reddick (1940).
Biographical/historical: Morgan and Marvin Smith, Harlem photographers and artists, were born in Nicholasville, Kentucky, in 1910. In 1933, after a brief period in Cincinnati, they both moved to New York City and found work with the Civil Works Administration (CWA), later called the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Marvin was a successful award-winning painter with the WPA, and Morgan assisted painter Vertis Hayes on the murals for the Harlem Hospital Nurses' Residence. Later, in 1950, Navy veteran Marvin Smith would travel to France, under the G.I. Bill, to study abstract painting with Fernand Léger. During the 1930s, the Smith brothers began to work as freelance photographers and submitted work to African-American newspapers, including the Pittsburgh Courier, the Baltimore Afro-American and the New York Amsterdam News. In 1939, they opened the M & M Smith Studio at 141 West 125th Street. A year later, they moved the studio to 243 West 125th, next to the Apollo Theater, where it was frequented by performing artists, writers, historians, and other Harlem community members. Their work captured the Harlem nightclub scene, social and political events, street scenes, and the activities of Harlem residents. During the 1950s, both Smith brothers began working in the motion picture and television industries, Morgan as a sound technician, Marvin as a set designer, until their retirement in 1975. Although photography was no longer their primary source of income, they kept their studio open until 1968. Morgan Smith died in Harlem in 1993; Marvin Smith died in Harlem in 2003.
Additional physical form: Many photographs bear photographers' handstamp on verso, and/or blind stamp on recto; some images bear photographer's name either printed or handwritten on recto. Many items bear handwritten notations on verso, some items captioned by Morgan Smith; some items bear typewritten captions. Some items have cropping or retouching marks; some items are duplicates